Private mobile number services risk pushing wrong buttons for consumers

118runnersDirectory services companies risk alienating customers by pushing ahead with controversial ‘extras’, such as mobile phone listings, which experts predict could ignite privacy fears.

The firms are increasingly looking for spin-offs from their core business, allowed following the deregulation of directory enquiries five years ago, to augment their revenues.

Listings firm The Number 118 118, which is proposing to launch a mobile phone directory, says it is aware that issues including invasion of privacy will be raised and that it is investigating consumer acceptance of such a service.

It is thought the company will supply mobile phone numbers for consumers and businesses (MW, last week). It says any launch will have to have “much marketing” around it. If it is successful, others are likely to follow suit. BT is “keeping a watchful brief” on the initiative.

Before the directory enquiries market was deregulated in 2003, British Telecom provided the 192 directory service. Now there are 200 providers in a market worth £249m, according to premium phone services regulator PhonePay Plus. Heavy advertising has given The Number 118 118, BT’s 118 500 and Conduit’s 118 888 over 90% of the market.

With so many players, companies must develop unique offers to stand out. Smaller player Maureen, 118 212, has had some success with its “She’s cheap” strapline. The Number 118 118’s iconic branding, with its WCRS-created runners and strapline “Got Your Number”, quickly established it with consumers. In a bid to reposition itself as more than a directory, it launched its “ask anything” service in May, allowing consumers to call or text to ask any question.

Internet emphasis
BT recently bought online business service UFindus to build up its online directory offering. BTexchanges.com general manager Bruce Abercromby says its directory strategy is moving towards online, which is “particularly growing”. It is adding social networking elements and user reviews to a new directory website.

Yell’s 118 247 service holds mobile numbers for businesses. But while business mobile numbers are seen as public property, there is evidence of reluctance from consumers to list personal mobile numbers.

An industry insider says: “Privacy is a key issue and people don’t want their mobile number to be available. Services that will connect people to numbers only with permission from the recipient can overcome this issue, but only if they explain long and hard how they work.”

Abercromby says: “Obviously, we have business mobiles, but residential is more tricky as there is no ready industry source and people are reluctant to give them out.”

He says that although the industry is working towards a database, mobile operators do not push the option to consumers. One way would be to ask consumers to opt in when receiving a new number.

Complex problem
Another telecoms executive says regulatory issues are a “big and complex subject” involving the EU, Ofcom, PhonePay Plus and other bodies. But players are at an advantage if they establish themselves early in the market.

Putting a system in place will take time and industry co-ordination. Yet perhaps the bigger challenge lies in selling the service to consumers who are already worried about privacy issues across their lives.

With its iconic, consistent and effective advertising strategy, coupled with its market-leading advantage, 118 118 may well find itself best equipped to lead such a revolution.

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